Tuesday Sessions 29: Knowing when to shift gears

Index to Tuesday Sessions

This lecture took place on April 13, 1999 and was the 29th in the series. The columns based on these lectures first appeared in Card Player Magazine.

Doyle Brunson, the twice world champion of poker and Hall of Fame member, talks a lot about “shifting gears.” Of course, now that almost everybody drives a car with an automatic transmission, the concept of shifting gears may not have the impact it once did. So, pretend you’re driving a big old truck or a small sports car without automatic. You need to shift to match driving conditions.

In poker, you can shift gears by changing from a very aggressive style of play to a more defensive one, from tight to loose, from bluff mode to non-bluff mode and back again. The object of shifting gears is to keep opponents off guard.

The nice thing about shifting gears in poker is that you always know right away that you’ve shifted, but your opponents may throw thousands of dollars your way before they figure it out. But, what if your opponents aren’t paying any attention to you?


Then, shifting gears is silly. You might as well just make your most profitable long-range decision on every play. There’s no reason to sacrifice the top choice in an effort to throw your opponents off-guard, because they simply aren’t reacting to you.

But that last type of opponent is more theoretical than actual. All opponents react to what you do to some extent, whether they realize it or not.

Still, changing gears just for the sake of it doesn’t accomplish much. You need to use the right gear at the right time. No sense cruising along the highway, making good time toward your destination, with no traffic, thinking, “Hey, I haven’t shifted gears for a while, maybe I’ll shift down to first gear and gradually rebuild my speed from there.”

So, today we’ll talk about shifting gears correctly. This material comes from the 29th in my serious of Tuesday Session classroom lectures at Mike Caro University of Poker, Gaming, and Life Strategy. The lecture was held on April 13, 1999. The following is from the handout that accompanied the lecture and has been specially enhanced for Card Player. The title of my talk was…

Shifting Gears for the Right Reasons

  1. Shifting gears is simply the act of changing tactics suddenly between tight and loose, between aggressive and passive, and back again.
    There is no word-class player who stays in the same gear all the time. You can’t maximize your profit without shifting gears, but shifting gears for the wrong reason can just cost you money. Sure, if your opponents are playing strict game theory without making any adjustments in accordance with how you play, you can only lose money by shifting gears. There’s simply no reason to do it.

    Shifting gears should only be done to confuse opponents or to enhance your image. There is no other reason whatsoever to shift. However, this does not mean that you shouldn’t “randomize” your decisions, even against some opponents who may not be paying attention when you change tactics. If you’re playing against an excellent opponent who is using game theory to his benefit (whether perfectly or imperfectly, whether consciously or unconsciously), you need to vary your decisions. Bet sometimes, but not always, with given hands. Bluff at random, but at the right frequency.

    But shifting gears is different from this kind of sudden randomization. Shifting gears means you’ve changed your basic mode of aggression or deception and intend to stay in that new mode for many hands, many minutes, or maybe for hours.

  2. There are only four good reasons to shift gears.
    1. To be less predictable and more confusing;
    2. To attack their money;
    3. To defend your money;
    4. To let opponents self-destruct.
  3. Shifting to appear less predictable only matters against certain players.
    They are ones who otherwise (consciously or unconsciously) would understand how you’re playing and who would and could take advantage if you stayed in the same gear.
  4. Don’t shift unless you need to.
    Stay in your most profitable gear as much as possible. If you don’t need to shift, don’t!
  5. Which gears work best?
    Consider a low gear (conservative and unaggressive) against tight, sensible opponents in rake games, because a fast strategy will eat up your profits in rakes. Also use a low gear when you’ve been seen losing or otherwise haven’t been able to establish a dynamic image – but have tried. This is very important, because normally borderline bets and raises are unprofitable against opponents who are inspired by your bad luck and may play better and become more deceptive as a result.

    Middle gears (sometimes aggressive, but also sometimes defensive) work best against aggressive and sensible opponents, but you should often shift up or down from middle gears. Middle gears should also be used against opponents who bluff often. In that case, middle gear often can mean calling, but not raising.

    High (fast) gears should be used against opponents who are intimidated by your image. Also use high gears while you are building your image. When you’re winning against weak opponents whose main fault is that they call too much with bad hands and don’t raise enough with valuable hands, go into high gear and stay there unless conditions change.

  6. The simple truth about shifting gears.
    Your primary goal should be to get into medium-high gear and stay there as much as possible. But — except in rare games where opponents call too much, raise too little, and don’t adapt — you will lose money if you stay locked in the highest gear.
  7. When you suddenly shift gears, you have the advantage!
    Even the most observant opponent has no way to tell that you shifted right away. This advantage of “acting first” in shifting your strategy before your opponents shift in response is available to all players. Make sure you use it often and hope that your strongest opponents don’t use it as much.
  8. Even unobservant opponents can be confused by gear shifting.
    Unconsciously they sense volatility and become more timid and play worse against you.
    When you’re in high gear and controlling the game… You should almost never shift down to play a big hand deceptively. Just keep betting and raising. Take advantage of your aggressive and deceptive image as long as it’s working. – MC

Next Tuesday Session

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Mike Caro

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Known as the “Mad Genius of Poker,” Mike Caro is generally regarded as today's foremost authority on poker strategy, psychology, and statistics. He is the founder of Mike Caro University of Poker, Gaming, and Life Strategy (MCU). See full bio → HERE.


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